Xenophobia and Violence in South Africa : a desktop study of the trends and a scan of explanations offered

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Xenophobia and Violence in South Africa : a desktop study of the trends and a scan of explanations offered.

Simon Bekker, Ilse Eigelaar-Meets, Gary Eva, and Caroline Poole
University of Stellenbosch
November 2008

African Dawn, a South African public sector consultant and development facilitating organisation, requested that this rapid desk-top project be done over a three month period. The aim of the project is given in the Introduction.
The team that conducted the desktop (and supplementary focus group) research comprised:

  • Simon Bekker, as project leader;

  • Ilse Eigelaar-Meets and Gary Eva as senior researchers;

  • Caroline Poole as fieldwork coordinator;

  • Lennox Olivier and Pierre Du Plessis as research assistants and

  • Marius Tredoux as administrative officer

The host Department at the University of Stellenbosch was the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology and all team members are affiliated in different ways to this Department.
The team would like to thank Louis Scheepers of African Dawn for selecting our team to undertake this research, and to express our gratitude to those residents who agreed to participate in the four focus group sessions and interviews we organized to supplement the secondary information we gathered on the xenophobic violence.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction.

  2. Cross-border migration of Africans into South Africa post 1994

  3. Xenophobia in South Africa before the May and June series of violent events.

  4. The development of a conceptual framework within which to analyse violent collective behaviour.

  5. Identification and summary of explanations offered for xenophobic violence in South Africa during May and June 2008 series of outbursts.

  6. The development of a chronology of xenophobic outbursts during May and June 2008.

  7. Case studies of four outburst events in the Western Cape

  8. Conclusion

  9. Appendices

  1. Bibliography

  2. List of printed media consulted

  3. Focus group schedule

  4. Tables


A compact disc entitled ‘‘Diffusion of violent xenophobic events in South Africa from 10 May to 30 June 2008: data assembled from the South African print media’’ accompanies this report.








Section 1 Introduction

(P)olitical histories of anti-colonial resistance (in South Africa) …are about an almost angelic dignity… It is as if the South African masses rose above their wretched circumstances and found an essential nobility which transcended time and place… Prison gangs (on the other hand) …get too close to the bone. They show us why generations of young black men lived violent lives under apartheid, and why generations more will live violently under democracy.’

Jonny Steinberg The Number
The purpose of this report is to develop an historical account of the run-up to, and current process of, xenophobic violence in South Africa. This will be done by

  • Establishing a conceptual framework within which to place this account and by using data from secondary sources to flesh it out;

  • Conducting a scan of explanations for outbreaks of xenophobic violence in general, and the 2008 series of South African events, in particular; and

  • Conducting preliminary qualitative fieldwork comprising focus group discussions with Western Cape residents in four residential neighbourhoods (four case studies) where such outbreaks occurred as well as interviews with selected individuals in the Northern Cape and adding these data to secondary data that have been assembled.

Accordingly, research conducted by the small project team has been predominantly desktop – collecting information from secondary sources rather than from fieldwork. In addition, since the project was of a short three-month duration, the focus is exclusively on the perpetrators of the violent xenophobic outbursts and on their actions, not on the victims and refugees during and after the series of outbursts. Xenophobia is commonly defined as “the hatred or fear of foreigners or strangers” and it is worth noting at this stage that it is the definitions by those South Africans whose sentiments may become xenophobic of ‘foreigner’ and ‘stranger’ that are pertinent (not technical definitions of intellectuals and of the state). Accordingly, a minority in a South African informal settlement may well be defined by residents as ‘strangers’ even though they (or some of them) may be South African nationals. Equally, the targets of this hatred need not be African or solely African, but could include foreigners from other continents residing in such an informal settlement.

During the second half of May 2008 (and continuing through the month of June), a series of short violent outbursts took place in neighbourhoods of numerous South African cities and towns. The violence during these outbursts was perpetrated by civilians, and was inflicted on the property and the person of civilians. The perpetrators were largely young poor black South African men, the targets largely the property and businesses of foreign African nationals as well as these civilians themselves. The series of outbursts began in Gauteng and spread about a week after the first serious event to other urban areas of the country, Cape Town and the Western Cape in particular. Initial state reaction was evasive, essentially denying the scope and seriousness of these events. Subsequently, as the series of events spread across the country, the state sought explanations in criminal and mob behaviour. This geographic spread of outbursts was accompanied by (and probably associated with) widespread coverage by the mass media – television, radio and newspapers – of these events and their possible causes. Since the reaction of many of the victims was flight from their residential areas, a series of temporary refugee camps were established (Gauteng and Cape Town in particular). During the aftermath of these outbursts, more than 20 000 refugees were accommodated in this way, numerous African foreign nationals were reported to have left the country, and government urged refugees in camps to return to the residential areas from which they had fled since these were said to have calmed down. The run-up to this series of outbursts moreover was framed by a number of parallel processes:

  • Large sustained migration streams of foreign African nationals entering South Africa after 1994

  • Large sustained rural-urban migration streams of rural black South Africans entering South African urban areas

  • Numerous reported xenophobic events in various urban settlings in the country

  • Incoherence and in-fighting over the establishment of a national immigration policy, and

  • Recent price increases in the costs of basic foods and of transport.

Explanations offered in the media and in other published documents for the series of outbursts between May and June 2008 are diverse. They vary from common and popular one-factor reductionist explanations (particularly in the early period) to more complex explanations of collective action drawing on relative deprivation or resource mobilization theories. The major factors in these latter explanations included

  • failure of government policies, such as service delivery, failure to address crime, collapse of border controls and unsuccessful diplomacy toward Zimbabwe;

  • the high unemployment rate particularly for young urban black men; and

  • the failings of the police (whether from lack of resources or poor training).

What the vast majority of these explanations share, on the other hand, is the predominance of external structural causes in the explanations. Little attention is given to internal factors directly related to individual outbursts themselves and to the shared meaning residents give to local issues. Accordingly, explanations tend to be given not for individual outbursts but for the series of events as a single phenomenon. Little attention equally appears to have been given to the diffusion in terms of both location and time of events during this period. Such an approach renders virtually invisible possible immediate causes for an individual outburst, rooted in local history and local identities – in other words, local causes for the particular event understood in terms of the meanings given by local residents to local issues remain hidden and largely undetectable. Such structural explanations moreover are able adequately to explain neither the emergence and particular diffusion of violence nor the selection of particular targets in individual events. Finally, since they tend to treat the activities of the police as a factual reactive element (either present or absent), they are able to establish neither the perceptions that local residents develop of police activity nor the possible proactive role the police may have played in the outburst.
Given this weakness in explanation, a more appropriate conceptual framework for violent collective behaviour and for the series of outbursts that are the focus of this report is developed. It embraces four parts:

  • Explanations focused on external structural causes,

  • Explanations focused on factors directly related to specific outbursts,

  • Explanations for the diffusion of outburst events, and

  • Explanations for perceptions concerning the forces of safety and security and concerning government.

Since explanations focused on specific outbursts are new and important, the sequence – or ‘rhythm’ – of phases through which a violent outburst moves, are listed here

    • Precipitant

    • Unsettling event

    • Dissemination of rumours

    • Lull

    • More deliberate acts of violence

    • Strong concentration on male victims.

    • Broadening of participation

The potential advantage of employing this framework is that the unit of analysis is the outburst, not the diffusion of violent events. This implies a focus both on general structural factors in the environment of the location of the outburst as well as on factors specific to that particular event, rendered largely invisible by other models. In addition, sentiments, perceptions and local conditions – as understood by local perpetrators of violence – are central to the explanations given for the events.

The research method employed by the project team began with a scan of secondary sources dealing with violent collective behaviour involving civilians (rather than state agents). Subsequently, secondary sources relating to the run-up to, and the May and June spread of, xenophobic violence in South Africa were assembled and scrutinised. In particular, daily and weekly national and provincial newspapers were consulted by employing key word scans within two separate electronic search engines and a comprehensive set of (some 4 000) news articles relating to reports on xenophobic sentiment and to events of xenophobic behaviour were assembled. These articles were subsequently sorted into files relating to cross-border migration after 1994, pre-May xenophobic sentiment, pre-May events of xenophobic violence, information on specific outbursts during the May-June period (‘event data’), and explanations offered by various commentators. Copies of news articles that required multiple filing were made. A list of newspapers scanned is included in the Appendices. The four case studies in the Western Cape were completed by merging event data on those particular outbursts identified in these scans with data assembled from outburst participants and observers during focus group discussions. A copy of the focus group schedule is included in the Appendices.

The validity of information on event data gathered through the print media requires comment. It is clear that there are issues relating to selection bias (the nature of the sampling made). We selected the print rather than the electronic media, national and regional rather than local or country papers, two search engines, and specific keywords. There are also issues relating to description bias (the veracity with which selected events are reported in the press). Recent research on the use of newspaper data in the study of collective behaviour
(Earl et al. 2004) argues that:

Although newspaper data may ignore key dimensions of a protest (e.g., its purpose), when event characteristics are included, especially hard news items (i.e., the who, what, when, where, and why of the event), the reports are, in general, accurate, indicating that missing data may be the most serious form of description bias. (emphasis added)

This research concludes that

researchers can effectively use such data and that newspaper data does not deviate markedly from accepted standards of quality.

The preliminary results of this research were presented in November 2008 to a small group of invited experts (from the South African Institute of Race Relations and the University of the Witwatersrand in Gauteng and the Universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and the Western Cape in Cape Town) to obtain feedback regarding the soundness of the draft project results. The draft report was subsequently amended.
The report opens with a section on cross-border migration of Africans into South Africa after 1994 (Section 2) and is followed by two short sections (3.1 & 3.2) on associated xenophobic sentiments that have developed among South Africans and on events of xenophobic violence that have taken place before the commencement in May 2008 of the series which forms the focus of this report. Subsequently, a conceptual framework within which to analyse violent collective behaviour is developed (Section 4) before an overview of explanations for the May and June series of outbursts found in the media and in other secondary sources is presented (Section 5). The main empirical section of the report (Section 6) comprises the development of a chronology of xenophobic outbursts during the period mid-May to mid-June 2008. The unit of analysis here is the individual outburst and secondary information is used to track the spread of outbursts and changes in their ‘rhythms’. A Compact Disc (CD) which records electronically this chronology and maps each event by province accompanies this report. The four case studies supplement the more quantitative analysis by shedding more detailed light on individual outbursts (Section 7). Interviews with individuals in the Northern Cape moreover identify possible reasons for the virtual absence of violent outbursts in that province. The conclusion (Section 8) discusses the usefulness of the Horowitz model in explaining outbursts and the spread of these outbursts, gaps – missing data -- in assembled information about what took place, and what additional research is needed to improve our understanding of these types of xenophobic outbursts in the country. It closes with an outline of an overarching explanation for the May and June 2008 outbursts, an outline comprising hypotheses that need empirical validation. A bibliography and other appendices are appended to the report (Section 9).
The Compact Disc entitled ‘Diffusion of violent xenophobic events in South Africa from 10 May to 30 June 2008: data assembled from the South African print media’ is an electronic supplement to this written report. It employs PowerPoint as a mapping tool and displays the names, locations and dates of xenophobic events before 10 May 2008 as well as during the first, middle and final phases of the May-June series under scrutiny.

Section 2 Cross-border migration of Africans into South Africa post 1994

Drawing on various secondary sources, the aim of this section is to present a brief overview of international migration into and within South Africa. The section briefly sketches the history of migration in South Africa as part of the Southern African region, noting major restructuring in cross-border migration patterns over the past two decades. The section then continues briefly to discuss the contested issue of migration figures for three migrant populations, a) documented immigrants and b) refugees and asylum seekers and c) undocumented immigrants.
The choice to migrate is essentially an individual response to real and/or perceived disequilibria between and within sectors of an economy, or between countries. Although the choice to migrate is a result of both complex social and economic factors, the primary push factor is the migrant’s search for greater economic well-being. Wherever significant differentials exist, migratory flows are directed from poorer impoverished countries to the core, toward attractive nodes (Oucho, 2006). This search for greater economic well-being has long marked migration movements within the Southern Africa region dating back to the mid-nineteenth century with mines (in South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) and commercial farms (in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland) constituting the most enduring magnets for legal labour migration within the region (Crush et.al. 2006). The founding of the South African diamond and gold mining industries ushered in the development of a modern industrial economy giving rise to the infamous South African migrant labour system, still very much in place today (Crush, 2008). Later, when addressing the reform of migration policy in South Africa, Wa Kabwe-Segatti (2008) analyses post-apartheid international migration movements towards South Africa as characterised by three major demographic features that distinguish them from the earlier situation in the late 1980s: the diversification of migrants’ origins, younger migrants and the feminisation of migration.
The issue of numbers and international migration
In popular discourse on migration figures, discussions often seem to be constructed along two categories of migrants - legal/documented migrants and illegal/undocumented migrants with nearly all migrants being lumped into the latter category. Accompanying words such as “flooding’, ‘swamping’ and ‘uncontrolled influx’ also do little to add value to the migration debate other than to create an ill-informed, moral panic among citizens, political leaders and policy makers.
When discussing international migration into South Africa, it is important to acknowledge the different types/categories of migrants that enter the country. A brief discussion of three migrant categories a) documented migrants, b) refugees and asylum seekers and c) undocumented migrants is given below.
a) Documented migrants

Documented migrants are essentially those that can be accounted for by the Department of Home Affairs and include migrants that have been granted permanent residency, work permits, study permits and visitors’ permits. Up to 1998, permanent migration was dominated by European immigrants. As of 2000 however the majority of migrants have been coming from Africa, with approximately 50% of legal permanent resident permits issued to Africans today, with Asians and Europeans now sharing the rest of permanent resident permits (Wa Kabwe-Segatti, 2008).

Given limitations of both 2001 Census and 2007 Community Survey data, this information does serve to give an indication of international migration trends for South Africa. Both these data sources suggest that the total number of foreign born individuals comprise a very small percentage of the total population [2.3% and 2.7% respectively]. When compared to the world’s highest immigration countries, these percentages are very low with South Africa located at the bottom of the list and Australia at the top with 23% of its population classified as foreign-born (Marindo, 2008). Consistent with Census data suggesting a slight increase in the number of foreign born individuals after 2000, official figures from the Department of Home Affairs show a slowdown in cross-border migration in the 1990s followed by a slight increase in the 2000s. Data on temporary legal migration to South Africa show a consistent drop from 1990 to 1999 [2000], a drop also found in mine labour recruitment data for the period 1990 to 2000 (Crush et.al. 2006).
b) Refugees and asylum seekers

The history of refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa dates back to the 1980s when the country was home to a significant number of Mozambican refugees (an estimated 350,000), of whom approximately 20% have since returned home. Officially however South Africa did not recognize refugees until 1993 and only became a signatory to the United Nations and Organisation of African Unity Conventions on Refugees in 1994. Landau (2006), in acknowledging that the number of refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa has undoubtedly increased in the past years, puts the total number of cross-border migrants in this category at not more than 150 000. With an approximate population size of 44 million, this is a rather small number.

s) Undocumented migrants

The issue regarding the number of undocumented migrants in the country has proved to be a contentious one in recent public, political and academic debate in South Africa. Central to this debate is the unquantifiable nature of this group of migrants together with a number of credible myths widely accepted as reality in South African society. As Solomon puts it when writing on the issue “….,the illegal and clandestine nature of this form of population movement provides an inadequate basis for its quantification” (Solomon, 2001:1). Regarding general accepted myths on this migrant group the most prominent worth mentioning here are:

  • That illegal migration began after the end of Apartheid;

  • That there are many millions of undocumented migrants in South Africa; and

  • That illegals tend to increase crime. (Vigneswaran, 2008)

Credible myths are typically informed by real events and observations and are often circulated by way of reputable reporting practices.

“The myths function like public rumours. They are created by a variety of relatively diffuse discursive practices that are often difficult to interrogate, or displace. A variety of sources, and particularly the media, tends to regularly reinforce, or lend credence to these ideas in their reporting of migration. Over time, often regardless of repeated contestation, these myths become the benchmarks of public debate”(Vigneswaran. 2008:142).
Although South Africa has indeed seen a jump in the numbers of undocumented migrants, in particular from countries within the African continent, clandestine movements across South African borders are not new. An important concern for the Apartheid government was the management of international movements which they sought to accomplish via the same enforcement structures it had designed for limiting the ‘influx’ of black South Africans to white areas (Vigneswaran, 2008:142).
In spite of the characteristically invisible character of this migrant group, various efforts have been made to get some estimate of their population size. Official numbers from Statistics South Africa place the number of undocumented migrants within the range of 500,000 to 1 million. Although the figure of 4 to 8 million undocumented migrants calculated by the Human Science Research Council was officially withdrawn, this figure continues to be used by the press when reflecting on the ‘influx’ of undocumented migrants into the country (Crush, 2008). Building on the notion of migrants as opportunists, the number does nothing more than to create the image of a subtle invasion of South African territory that requires an immediate and direct response (Vigneswaran. 2008).
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